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Legendary Freda Payne Shines in ‘Ella, First Lady of Song’

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There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Ella Fitzgerald before, but how well do you know the person behind the name? Before attending Meadow Brook Theatre’s Ella, First Lady of Song, I’m sad to say I didn’t know much about the iconic performer of the early 1900s. Sure, I’ve heard of the legendary singer from my grandmother, who was an avid lover of music and played her records and albums frequently. She insisted Ella Fitzgerald was one of the best jazz singers to ever grace this world with her talent, but when you’re a child, that doesn’t sink in the way it probably should. Her life, her struggles, her triumphs-all of it is a fascinating journey waiting to be explored.

Yet, even in my rock and roll history class, which discussed jazz at length, the life and achievements of Fitzgerald were skimmed over. But her story will no longer be shrouded in mystery, as Ella, First Lady of Song, has its Michigan premiere at the Meadow Brook Theatre. Written and directed by Lee Summers, with Cheryl L. Marshall as managing director and Travis W. Walter as artistic director, this musical stars Freda Payne, a Detroit Native and singer of hits such as “Band of Gold” and “Bring the Boys Home”. 

Joining her on stage is a six-piece band directed by Dionne Hendricks and fellow actors Eric Coles, Nicole Powell, and Debra Walton. With Ella, First Lady of Song only playing for a few more weeks at the Meadow Brook Theatre, you only have a little more time to catch this incredible story of the Queen of Jazz.

[Warning: Spoilers from Ella, First Lady of Song are below!]

Ella Fitzgerald’s early life wasn’t easy

When Ella, First Lady of Song begins, we find the jazz singer giving a performance later in her career. Her cousin Georgina (Nicole Powell) and manager Norman Granz (Eric Coles) are both going about their business of handing Ella, which ultimately puts them at odds. Why? The audience doesn’t know, at least not yet, what brought our characters to this place and time. As Mrs. Fitzgerald (Payne) takes the stage, the musical utilizes frame storytelling, transporting the audience back to Fitzgerald’s early years, long before she ever sang in front of a crowd.

It’s there on the streets of New York that we discover Ella (Debra Walton), a vocal girl who struggles to find her identity. She knows she wants more from her life, hoping to escape the abuse of her step-father Joe Da Silva (Coles), but can’t seem to break the chains that bind her. Her cousin Georgina, who served as Ella’s protector her entire life, is hesitant about Ella’s ambitious dreams of being a star.

Ella, First Lady of Song
Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald. Ella, First Lady of Song (Credit: Chris Banks).

That doesn’t stop her from pushing her cousin to pursue the dream of being a dancer, which leads Ella to an amateur night at the Apollo. It’s on this stage that her singing career is launched, when she was too afraid of following the Edwards Sisters, a local dance duo who took the stage just before her.

Pivoting like a true performer, Ella breaks into a song, stunning the audience and band alike. Even though she won, due to her appearance, Ella isn’t able to complete her residency at the Apollo, but that doesn’t slow her down. Instead, she moves on and finds herself in the presence of greatness, Chick Webb (Greg Bufford), who ultimately signs her with his band. And the rest is, as they say, history.

The highs and lows of a legend’s career in Ella, First Lady of Song

Having seen quite a few biographical jukebox musicals (Cher, The Temptations), I’ve noticed that many seem to skew the narrative they tell. It’s understandable that creatives might want to focus on the positives of the artist, but in doing so, the musical then erases the complexity of humanity. We’re not just all good or all bad, but a robust mixture of each, which is perhaps the most exciting aspect of watching a musical such as this. Observing the negatives of someone makes us appreciate the positives they possess even more, humanizing these larger-than-life musicians.

This was definitely a worry I had when I walked into Ella, First Lady of Song, but I was pleasantly surprised by how candid the musical was about Ella Fitzgerald’s life. As the show progresses and Ella transitions from a young musician into a seasoned performer, you come to learn how temperamental she is. Firing band members and even her own cousin became common practice, especially if she felt unheard or undervalued by them. 

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald (credit: The Rudy Calvo Collection Cache Agency)

She was an absolute powerhouse on stage, with vocals that could bring down a house, but she was also fiercely independent and stubborn beyond belief. She also had horrid taste in men, but I can’t exactly fault her for that. And yet, she had a heart that was expansive in the love she showed people. This dichotomy that exists within Ella Fitzgerald is what makes her and her story so interesting to watch.

It’s this song and dance that plays out so well on the stage, which Payne brings to life with such ease and grace. It truly takes someone special and powerful in their own right to bring this legend to life on stage, and Payne does so ten-fold. 

As is with all live performances, there were some bumps

One thing about live theater is that no matter what, the show must go on. Every time you see a show, it’s different, depending on the energy both on and off the stage. There’s also an infinite number of problems that could arise, which is to be expected. 

In our performance of Ella, First Lady of Song, we experienced some of those bumps, such as a section of the stage coming in much quicker and harder than was attended, almost knocking some props over. There was also a pesky motor that moved the middle section of the stage, which hummed louder than some of the microphones on our side. 

Again, this is to be expected and in no way impacts the overall enjoyment of the show. At most, these incidences temporarily pull you out of your enraptured experience with those on stage, to remind you of the division between the narrative and reality. With the immense talent on stage, it was easy to jump back in and wrap yourself into Ella Fitzgerald’s story once again. 

Ella, First Lady of Song is a win for Meadow Brook Theatre

Something I enjoy about every performance I’ve seen at Meadow Brook Theatre is how up close and personal you get with the shows. It’s more intimate, making you feel like you’re living the story, not just observing it. Meadow Brook Theatre was the perfect venue to have the Michigan premiere of Ella, First Lady of Song, as this show is vastly more intimate than any that I’ve seen before.

Audiences get an in-depth look at Fitzgerald’s life, which includes some difficult topics such as sexual assault and abuse by a parental figure. This can be difficult to watch, understandably so, so perhaps Ella, First Lady of Song should be reserved for mature teenagers and adults.

While Freda Payne is the star of the show, it’s the other actors on stage with bring this musical to life. Eric Coles, Nicole Powell, and Debra Walton are stars in their own right, making this musical something special.

Ella, First Lady of Song is currently playing at Meadow Brook Theatre through June 23. What are your thoughts on jukebox musicals? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or @boxseatbabes! To learn more about Ella Fitzgerald, her life, music, and the work of The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, visit EllaFitzgerald.com.

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

Brian Kitson has 35 posts and counting. See all posts by Brian Kitson